Join us as we endeavour to understand a tragic story in the Old Testament. We catch a picture of how they understood God and how it appeared He functions.
Ravishing Rizpah and King David
The Bible is full of stories because history is a collection of stories important to the writer. History is after all his-story. These stories give us vignettes on the culture and traditions of the time. This one provokes so many questions one is left gasping for breath after reading and thinking about the story and its implications.
2 Samuel 21:1-14 NLT
21 There was a famine during David’s reign that lasted for three years, so David asked the LORD about it. And the LORD said, “The famine has come because Saul and his family are guilty of murdering the Gibeonites.”
This is the author’s understanding, which is correct according to the Blessings and Curses as stated in the Torah.
There was a famine or drought for three years and David turned to the LORD for a solution because of the above curse. The divine response was that the genocide of Saul against the Gibeonites was the cause of the drought.
The attribution of tragedy to the LORD is common in the Bible. It is caused by the writer’s ignorance of a supernatural evil being who is at work in suffering and death (John 8:44; 10:10; Hebrews 2:14). This is a good example of taking the LORD’s name in vain. People often claim they have heard from the LORD when what they heard was their own desire or understanding.
Here is Jesus’ understanding of God and his relationship to rain and famine.
Matthew 5:43-45 “And if, in spite of all this, you still disobey me, I will punish you seven times over for your sins. 19 I will break your proud spirit by making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze. 20 All your work will be for nothing, for your land will yield no crops, and your trees will bear no fruit.” “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’[a ] and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.”
How shall we synchronize Moses, David and Jesus? One way is to say that Moses and David did not understand God’s unconditional love for his creation. Another possibility is to say that when Israel was disobedient, they forced away God’s protection and Satan or the devil could bring terrible results on Israel. God is blamed since this is a supernatural event and the writers were unaware of the existence of the devil until about 400 BC.
There is an additional aspect to this story. In the previous chapter we have the story of the rebellion of Sheba son of Bicri. Joab pursued him and with the aid of the wise woman of Abel-beth-maacah Sheba was executed. This means that rebellion against David’s reign was not only possible but as this incident shows, it was probable and Sheba is not related to Saul!
David needs to discourage rebellion and what better way than to exterminate the male line of Saul as was the cultural custom at that time.
2 So the king summoned the Gibeonites. They were not part of Israel but were all that was left of the nation of the Amorites. The people of Israel had sworn not to kill them, but Saul, in his zeal for Israel and Judah, had tried to wipe them out.
The Israelites had made peace with the deceiving Gibeonites and made them labourers for Israel (Joshua 9). Although not recorded in the Bible Saul had tried to eliminate these remaining Amorite or Canaanite people. This was the plan according to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:16 “
3 David asked them, “What can I do for you? How can I make amends so that you will bless the LORD’s people again?”
David seems to think that the famine is because the Gibeonites had cursed Israel. The idea of a curse was real in the thinking of the people of this time. Today we speak of consequences rather than curses. We know that bad governance can lead to food shortages if provision has not been made for such an event. Joseph in Egypt stored food for the coming famine is an example of good governance.
How is it that David is asking the Gentiles for a moral solution to the famine? Why not ask the LORD? Perhaps he did ask the LORD and there was no response.
4 “Well, money can’t settle this matter between us and the family of Saul,” the Gibeonites replied. “Neither can we demand the life of anyone in Israel.” “What can I do then?” David asked. “Just tell me and I will do it for you.”
Saul was dead and Israel had the prohibition stated in Deuteronomy 24:16
5 Then they replied, “It was Saul who planned to destroy us, to keep us from having any place at all in the territory of Israel. 6 So let seven of Saul’s sons be handed over to us, and we will execute them before the LORD at Gibeon, on the mountain of the LORD.” “All right,” the king said, “I will do it.”
After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.”
It could be argued that Saul was doing the LORD’s will in exterminating the deceiving Gibeonites.
“Parents must not be put to death for the sins of their children, nor children for the sins of their parents. Those deserving to die must be put to death for their own crimes.”
Why seven sons? Perhaps the Gibeonites were now familiar with Israelite culture and knew about the significance of seven. The certainly would have heard about marching around Jericho seven times. There is an inconsistency between verse 4, “we cannot demand the death of anyone in Israel” and this request. Perhaps it was not seen this way since it was a request of David and not a demand of the Gibeonites.
Gibeon, the mountain of the Lord was where Solomon made a thousand sacrifices. (This was not where sacrifices were to be made but probably a high place where sacrifices were made to various gods (1 Kings 3:3-4)). It was here that God promised to give Solomon wisdom.
Why did David agree to this request by the Gibeonites since he must have known about Deuteronomy 24:16 and he had spared Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan a grandson of Saul? He had also covenanted with Saul not to execute his descendants (1 Samuel 24:21). Why was he willing to break this covenant he had made? David could have rationalized that he was not executing them. The Gibeonites now become the executioners of David’s threats. Mephibosheth, the lame son, would not have been the threat these seven sons were.
There is also the Gibeonite intention to execute them before the LORD. What was the meaning of this statement? Was it to suggest this was righteous revenge? Was it a sacrifice to earn the LORD’s favour.
David could have refused the Gibeonite request and offered land or position to them. Instead, he allowed the custom of executing the male descendants of a king’s predecessor and possibly a desire for revenge against Saul to permit this request. We cannot conclude that this arrangement was inspired by God. The execution of Adolf Eichmann, one of the Nazi’s who was involved in the holocaust, by the Israeli’s when he is 56 years old is a case in point. Eichmann was living in Argentina and posed no further threat to the Israelis’. The Israeli’s kidnapped him and tried him and executed him. Their reason was “justice” but it was simple revenge. Revenge plays a significant role in human actions and many stories center on the need for revenge or the futility of revenge. The Count of Monte Christo is one of the more famous stories of revenge.
7 The king spared Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth who was Saul’s grandson, because of the oath David and Jonathan had sworn before the LORD. 8 But he gave them Saul’s two sons Armoni and Mephibosheth, whose mother was Rizpah daughter of Aiah. He also gave them the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, the wife of Adriel son of Barzillai from Meholah.
Saul had promised David that he could marry his eldest daughter Merab if he paid 100 Philistine foreskins for her. He brought 200 but Saul married Merab off to Adriel. Perhaps to spite David who was his enemy. Did this have anything to do with David’s decision? Merab’s sons were grandsons of Saul and nephews of David since he was married to Michal. In addition, Rizpah’s sons were also David’s nephews. The Gibeonites were happy to execute them even though they were grandson of Saul.
Did the fact that Rizpah was a concubine influence David’s decision to give her sons up for execution? Rizpah must have been a beautiful woman to have been Saul’s concubine.
9 The men of Gibeon executed them on the mountain before the LORD. So all seven of them died together at the beginning of the barley harvest.
One’s heart cannot imagine the trauma of this execution for these men’s mothers. They would have never recovered from this loss of love and hope for the future with no social security, especially for women.
We now know about the effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We also know about post infidelity stress disorder (PISD). These are caused by experiencing or observing or hearing about trauma. This disorder affects one’s brain and body physically. The amygdala is a primitive, animalistic part of the brain that’s wired to ensure survival. So, when it’s overactive as a result of trauma, it’s hard to think rationally. The prefrontal cortex, where we make decisions, is limited in function by trauma.
10 Then Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the mother of two of the men, spread burlap on a rock and stayed there the entire harvest season. She prevented the scavenger birds from tearing at their bodies during the day and stopped wild animals from eating them at night.
Rizpah is devoted to her sons even in death. She becomes the inspiration or source of shame for David who makes amends by recovering the bodies of Saul and Jonathan and burying them together with these seven corpses in the ancestral tomb for the family of Kish. If David had not done so he might have stirred up further rebellion with his complicity in the death of the seven grandsons of Saul.
11 When David learned what Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done, 12 he went to the people of Jabesh-gilead and retrieved the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan. (When the Philistines had killed Saul and Jonathan on Mount Gilboa, the people of Jabesh-gilead stole their bodies from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them.) 13 So David obtained the bones of Saul and Jonathan, as well as the bones of the men the Gibeonites had executed. 14 Then the king ordered that they bury the bones in the tomb of Kish, Saul’s father, at the town of Zela in the land of Benjamin. After that, God ended the famine in the land.
“After that, God ended the famine in the land.” This may be a literal statement or it could be the conclusion of the writer. No droughts last forever except perhaps in some of the greater deserts. We can be certain that correlation does not mean causation.
At one point in our missionary service we lived in a remote area during a short drought. The local people asked if they could fell a tall tree in which there was a nest of fledgling crows. They believed the rain would not come until they were out of the nest. I attempted to disprove the logic of their request but to no avail. I agreed to letting them cut the tree down to demonstrate the folly of their belief. We cut the tree down and it rained. The superstition was proved correct in the eyes of the local people. We all have false traditions we believe in. We say the sun rises without a qualm even though we know the earth rotates.
Does guilt affect the rainfall? The guilt of deforestation or overgrazing or over cultivation does but on the other hand we have regular rainfall over wicked countries and cities. Satan can influence weather patterns as the first two chapters of Job demonstrate.
We must be careful what actions we attribute to God. He is a God of compassion and mercy and he changes not in this respect. Saul’s sons are safe in his hands but there are wicked supernatural powers and wicked thoughts in humans. Sin is unrighteousness, which means it knows no rhyme or reason. It is unpredictable and we all come under its power from time to time and then we die because Adam sinned which is hardly fair. On the other hand, we will be saved even though a lifetime of good works does not earn us enough credit. Saving sinners is surely not legally fair either. We are only safe in God’s radical, unconditional grace which comes from his heart.
Did God end the famine? If so, was it because the Gibeonites were revenged on Saul? Was it because David honoured Saul and Jonathan in death? Was it because nature had run its course? Is this story an attempt to explain the cause and termination of the famine under David’s rule? Is this statement to prove that God caused the drought? Is this a story to deliver David from the guilt of executing the male descendants of Saul who would have been a threat to his reign as Absolom was.
El Nino and La Nina are climate patterns in the Pacific Ocean that can affect weather worldwide. Are these patterns related to morality or lack of morality on earth? In North America? In South America? In Asia?
Who caused the famine in Egypt that Joseph predicted and prepared for? Was this divine intervention to catapult Joseph into prominence? Was this prediction also causation?
We can conclude that David believed that God was punishing Israel for Saul’s attempted genocide of the Amorites which included the Gibeonites. The execution or sacrifice of the 7 sons of Saul was ostensibly to placate the anger of the LORD against Israel. This pagan understanding seems to be set in Israel’s culture as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac indicates. The concept that the LORD needs appeasement was behind the animal sacrifices that Israel made during their 2000-year journey from Abraham to Jesus Christ. No one in Jesus’ time believed Messiah would die as we Christians know in retrospect.
This is what we know for certain about God’s role as Jesus taught us.
“God gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45).
The devil is a liar and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). The devil steals away our faith, kills our joy, and destroys our hope (John 10:10).
Ian Hartley, May 2021.